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‘Are You Freaking Kidding Me?’: Inspector General Says Police Commander Was Stunned by Trump Photo Op, Turning Lafayette Square Narrative on Its Head


US President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020. - US President Donald Trump was due to make a televised address to the nation on Monday after days of anti-racism protests against police brutality that have erupted into violence. The White House announced that the president would make remarks imminently after he has been criticized for not publicly addressing in the crisis in recent days.

Upending the public’s understanding of one of the most controversial images of the Donald Trump presidency, the Interior Department’s inspector general on Wednesday released 41-page report asserting that Park Police did not clear racial justice protesters to make way for a photo shoot with the Bible in front of St. John’s Church.

Instead, the inspector general says, Park Police had plans to install anti-scale fencing because of property damage in Lafayette Square, and the commander claims to have been taken aback when then-Attorney General Bill Barr told him of Trump’s impending visit.

“Are you freaking kidding me?” the commander exclaimed, according to the report.

The inspector general wrote that the commander asked that question in response to another query from Barr.

“Are these people still going to be here when POTUS [President of the United States] comes out?” Barr is quoted asking, apparently referring to the Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrating on June 1, 2020.

That was the day that police controversially deployed tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets to remove protesters in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Once the crowd was dispersed, Trump made his way through the square and posed with a Bible in his right hand in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been damaged by a fire that was intentionally set the night earlier. The church’s bishop denounced what she described as a stunt with symbolism “antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our churches stand for.”

Despite the colorful exchange quoted in the report, the inspector general wrote: “The [U.S. Park Police] operations commander denied that the Attorney General ordered him to clear Lafayette Park and H Street,” the report states.

As the Interior Department inspector general would have it, the church’s bishop—along much of the nation—wrongly attributed a link between the clearing of the square and the photo shoot, which transpired in rapid succession through a comedy of errors.

“We found that the USPP had the authority and discretion to clear Lafayette Park and the surrounding areas on June 1,” the inspector general’s findings began. “The evidence we obtained did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church. Instead, the evidence we reviewed showed that the USPP cleared the park to allow the contractor to safely install the antiscale fencing in response to destruction of property and injury to officers occurring on May 30 and 31. Further, the evidence showed that the USPP did not know about the President’s potential movement until mid- to late afternoon on June 1—hours after it had begun developing its operational plan and the fencing contractor had arrived in the park.”

The inspector general found that at least one Bureau of Prisons officer appeared to breach instructions about the use of pepper balls.

“The [U.S. Park Police] incident commander had instructed that pepper balls should be used from inside the park only if protesters breached the fence line,” the report states. “USPP and open-source video evidence we reviewed showed at least one [Bureau of Prisons] officer shooting pepper balls toward H Street from inside Lafayette Park but did not show protesters breaching the bike-rack fence line.”

A press representative for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington—which oversees more than 80 Episcopal congregations, including St. John’s—did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As a Trump appointee, Interior inspector general Mark Lee Greenblatt had his findings dismissed out of hand in many corners, and the report states outright that the watchdog did not seek to interview Barr, White House personnel, Bureau of Prisons officers, Metropolitan Police, or Secret Service personnel about their decisions that did not involve the Park Police. The report notes that the Justice Department inspector general, the Government Accountability Office and Metropolitan Police have conducted separate investigations.

Still, the Interior watchdog report hardly clears either the former administration or authorities. It depicts Barr as blindsiding officials with Trump’s visit and recommended improving communication procedures for multiagency operations—a suggestion accepted by current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

“We look forward to continuing to work with [the office of inspector general] as your team undertakes the important work of evaluating the Department’s programs and operations to promote accountability and integrity,” wrote Haaland, the first Native-American cabinet secretary.

The report also found that authorities failed to warn Black Lives Matter protesters before clearing the square.

Read the full report below:

(photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."